February 25, 2009

A trip Hirosaki in the Winter

I'm always complaing about how I am busy and don't have any time. It is true that I am busy, but time is one of those strange things that you can definitely find more of if you have a good reason. Last weekend I took a kind of spur-of-the-moment trip up north to Hirosaki. The main reason for the trip was to get out of Tokyo and see some snow. I also thought it would be a nice trip to get a change of pace. I've been working pretty hard lately and it would be nice to get away from computers for a weekend and relax a bit. When my friend Ian suggested a trip up north, I thought it was a great chance for a change of pace.

I have been in Japan for three years, but haven't really travelled very much domestically. Thinking back, I'm a bit surprised at how little I've travelled. I'll try to fix that once R. and I get on a better schedule together. So Ian and I visited the local travel agent and got a great deal on train tickets plus an overnight stay at an onsen (hot springs resort) in Hirosaki. I haven't been up north for siteseeing much - I did go to Sapporo once for a conference, and did a little bit of travelling then, but I haven't done any tourism in the northern part of the main island. One of the goals of going there now is to see the snow, because we don't get much of it in Tokyo.

On Saturday morning Tokyo train station was absolutely packed with lots of young people carrying skis and snowboards, headed west to go skiing. Not as much people were headed north, but our train was still pretty full. After about an hour, we arrived at Sendai, and from there on things were snowy. It was amazing once we got up in the mountains because you could barely see out the window. It was snowing and things were just a white blur at the speed the Shinkansen was making. I really enjoy train trips, and this was no exception. As part of our ticket package, we got a voucher for coffee on the train, and like most coffee on Shinkansen it wasn't the best in the world, but it was coffee and came in a cute Suica cup. Also, I was amused that one of the trains on our trip was apparently executable. The trip from Tokyo to Hirosaki was supposed to take about five hours all told. The main bulk of the trip was from Tokyo to Hachinohe, on the Shinkansen taking about four hours, and from there another hour and a half or so to cut across West to Hirosaki. Unfortunately, when we got to Hachinohe (which means the 8th Door. There are also towns called 2nd Door, 6th Door, etc.) the trains were not in service because of high winds and snow. Instead they were using busses. So we got on a bus. It was supposed to be headed directly to Hirosaki, but instead at the last minute was changed to stop at Aomori. That probably added an hour and a half to the trip and the passangers were not very happy about it. Two old guy started yelling at the JR guy in very unpolite Japanese. The bus was packed - people in every seat, including the unfortunately souls who had to sit in the aisle on these lame fold-out seats that did not look very comfortable.

The bus probably averaged about 40 KM/H. It was slow. We stopped at two rest stops. There was nothing to eat there except for the standard types of omiyage (gift foods) so for lunch we had strange cake-like things and other gift-type foods. It was a long, long trip, but we eventually arrived at Hirosaki at about 4:30pm. Then we had another bus ride, about half an hour, until we arrived at our onsen, exhausted, tired, and out of daylight.

If you check the maps (hopefully on the right, or maybe a bit up above this) the trip is basically a mostly straight shot from Tokyo north-east up to Hachinohe. That is all on the bullet train. Very fast, very nice. Then from Hachinohe we take a normal commuter train (express style, called the Super White Bird I think) over to Aomori, the biggest city in the north-east. The final leg of the trip is on a tourist train with beautiful big windows called the "Kamoshika", but as I wrote above, train service was suspended and we were in a bus. For like 3 hours. And we stopped at small rest stations. And there was no food. Ian and passed the time playing video games, him on a cool PSP 3000 playing Star Wars Battlefront II while I was playing Tapper on my older, less well-known but more linuxy GP2X. Actually, I enjoyed the bus ride to the extent that long bus rides can be enjoyed.

Once we got to our Ryokan, we were tired and so hit the onsen. I'm sure I've written about onsen (the Japanese hot springs that people here love so much) before, so I won't revisit that topic again. I will note that this place had a 露天風呂 (Rotenburo, outdoor hot spring) which we made use of. Walking naked outside in the cold, with lots of snow falling and on the ground was a bit tough, but the bath is only about a six second walk from the indoor bath, so it wasn't too bad. The suddent dip then into 42 degree C hot water probably isn't a good thing to repeat over and over (and I am suffering a bit of a cold after the trip!) but it was great to sit out in the hot bath and watch the snow fall a hand's reach away.

We had a great dinner (included in the price of the trip) which I forgot to take picture of. It was very good though. Then on the way back to the room stopped to see a live Tsugaru Shamisen performance. The guy was pretty funny, and put on a good show. Then on up to the room and bed.

One of the main goals I had was to get out and see some real snow. I grew up in LA as a kid, and didn't ever see snow. When I was around 13 years old we moved to New Jersey and this white stuff that fell from the sky when it was cold was amazing to me. Then I moved to Dallas, and after that New York, neither of which get all that much snow. Tokyo sees even less snow than New York. But Touhoku (the north-east region of the main Japan island) is full of snow. Not as full of it as Saporro, but full of snow. So I wanted to get out and walk around in it. Ian and I were on a kind of tight schedule, but got up at 6am, hit the onsen again, got some nice breakfast (which I did get pictures of), and then went out for a 15 minute walk to the nearest temple. The temple, 岩木神社 (Iwaki Temple), was great. It was up a hill, full of snow, and just seemed really neat. I wish we had more time to walk around and see the temple grounds. They had a sign set up near a hanging bulls-eye target saying that if you could hit it with a snowball (from the path) then you would have good luck. I completely missed the thing. But I like interactive temples, so it is all good.

The walk back was cold, but we eventually made it. Just in time to check out and head back to Hirosaki station. We really wanted to see some of the Hirosaki sights, but due to a variety of comical mix-ups, didn't really have all that much time. We did get a chance to see the Neputa museum though, which I was really excited about because I've seen some TV broadcasts of a festival in the area where people build these great lighted floats and walk them around town. The musuem had a bunch of these on display, and they look really great. I would like to go back to Touhoku in the summer for one of those festivals. There are apparently two main ones, the one in Aomori (which is crazy big) and the one in Hirosaki, which is not quite as well known and is somehow slightly different. It is probably like the difference between the New York Jets and the New York Giants: I'm not really too clear on it, but some people are rabid enough to kill each other over it (apparently.)

After a nice trip through the museum and some shopping for gifts - お土産 (Omiyage), which are required after every trip out of town. You need to buy enough for the people you work for and pass them around. It is the only enforced social contact that we have at work with people outside our groups. It is really cool actually, because usually once or twice a week someone comes and gives you a small cake, or cracker, and you can chat about what things are like way out there where they visited (usually an hour or two away by bullet train.) The region we were in is the #1 producer of apples in Japan, so most things were apple-themed. Pretty good stuff.

The trip back we were able to ride the great tourist train. Big windows, a nice viewing lounge, comfortable seats. Really nice. Unfortunately, we hadn't booked ahead for the train from Aomori to Hachinohe, and we were a bit late making the transfer. We were in the "open seating" train, and since all the seats were taken, we ended up standing for the hour or so it took to get to Hachinohe before we could catch the bullet train home.

All in all, a really nice trip out for the weekend. I'm really surprised that after living in Japan for three years, I haven't done more of these short weekend trips. As long as the trains are running they really go pretty quickly, and you can get pretty far for a good deal when you do the package hotel + meals + train tickets plan. I'm really looking forward to taking R. out to go snowboarding sometime.

February 16, 2009

Video cards and linux ... again!

I know I've written about this before but video cards and linux are annoying. Actually, I think video cards are just annoying, this doesn't have much to do with linux at all. They are confusing and hard to get working right.

I actually have two video cards floating around here, an NVidia GeForce (uh, let me check the box) 8400GS and an AMD Radeon HD2400Pro (had to check that box too.) I think they are both reasonable cards to have.

I haven't been using either of them though, instead using the Intel GMA3100 on-board video. Why? Because the two previous times I tried to get the video cards working they didn't. The only problem with using the Intel video is that it isn't really up-to-snuff: the compiz (pretty window and graphics effects) slows down when you have too many windows open. I didn't really mind that, but the problem is that when I reboot the system I have to unplug the monitor and wait until Ubuntu boots into a 1920x1200 mode before it will work. Otherwise the monitor gets into some strange mode and the video card picks up the EDID information from the monitor wrong, sending a bad video mode and basically not working.

Since I don't reboot my machine often that isn't a problem. Except when I have to reboot. Also, I just found out that some games - or in fact random bad key combinations - might also set the monitor into a bad state. And I can't find out where Ubuntu stores the resolution information so I can't ssh in and change it back to what it is supposed to be.

Since I had to reboot to get the screen back, I thought I would pull the desktop out and try shoving the cards back into it. Maybe the drivers had advanced in the past few months. The Nvidia card was still no good: graphic corruption and hard freezes after a short while. I think there could be some hardware incompatibility there. Also, the card doesn't quite fit in my machine. So I couldn't really use it anyway.

The Radeon card is working though! Well, kind of. It turns out that there is some problem with compiz and AMD's driver so you can't run them both at the same time. After turning compiz off though, no more video flickering, and it plays back video really well. I don't know if it is an improvement over the Intel video, but at least it plays with the monitor well and doesn't get stuck in strange non-displayable states.

I would love to use compiz, so hopefully AMD will get around to making their drivers play nice with it.

February 11, 2009

Amazon's Kindle 2

Not that I'm breaking any news here at all, but Amazon has announced the second version of their ebook reading, the Kindle. It is a nice looking piece of hardware. I actually tested a version of this a few months back when I was in Palo Alto. I really would like to get one of these devices, but it is only being sold in the US currently because of the included wireless internet service. I assume. I will definitely buy one of these if they are released in Japan, but I think I can wait until then.

I have an OLPC that I use to read ebooks on, so that should last me for a while. I'm also a bit unhappy that the books are Digital Restrictions Management on them so you can't read the books that you buy on other hardware. I wonder if the books will be accessible in 20 years or so. I know that my real paper books will be, as long as I manage to store them that long.

Anyway, a cool looking device that I really want, but I'll wait until we get a Japanese approved version out.

February 8, 2009

Game Center CX: So totally nerdy, it has to be Japanese


Arino-san up close
Arino-san up close. He's afraid of "the concept of (a) time (limit)!"

Game screen shots
Game screen shots with little explanations of the game characteristics. In this case, rappelling action is the key to the strategy.

A while back I heard about Game Center CX (and an English Wikipedia link also.) It is a TV show that is on Fuji TV, a normal TV channel broadcast over the air, about video games. The main focus of the show is Arino-san, a guy in this mid-30s (?) who plays video games. It is a kind of twist on a conventional Japanese formula: put people in painful or awkward situations and see how they respond to the adversity. The painful situation in this case? Play a difficult game from the 80s to completion. These games are tough. Also, Arino-san is pretty much locked up in a room and not allowed out.

Of course, as with almost all funny people on TV, Arino-san is from the Kansai region. I'm not really sure why he is so funny, but he is really funny. He's playing some game, and gets up to the end boss. He pauses the game and is like "What's that? It's HUGE!" but the way he says it is hilarious. I've watched the first 5 rental episodes of the show (there are 6 total) and have enjoyed each one.

The versions that are available for sale are actually different from the rental versions. I have enjoyed these things so much that I am thinking of picking up the box sets (1 2 3 4 5).

The other interesting thing is that there are two Nintendo DS games based on the series which are compilations of re-made retro games. That sounds interesting to me too. I really want to pick up a Nintendo DS soon: they have nice dictionary software (漢字そのまま DS楽引辞典) and "games" for learning how to write kanji (DS美文字トレーニング) that I would like to try.

The "Division Chief" (課長 - Arino-san) plays some tough games. I was interested when he played Prince of Persia (the Super Nintendo version.) I played Prince of Persia on the Apple //e (after Karateka), but I never got very far at all. So it was really interesting to watch Arino-san go at it. I'm glad I didn't put much time into the game: it was super crazy hard!

He also took on both Ghosts and Goblins and Super Ghoul's and Ghosts, both of which I've played, and never got very far in at all. Those are tough games.

Anyway, check out the Wikipedia link. It is comprehensive. Nerds. I highly recommend the show. The Japanese is fairly accessible, it is super funny, and even if you don't understand Japanese just watching the games is pretty cool.

February 7, 2009

Things I've been watching on TV

These are things I've been watching on TV. I didn't know much about "How I met your mother", but I really like Neil Patrick Harris. So I started watching because he's in it. I have no idea where I started watching from, but I really enjoy the series. Neil Patrick Harris' character Barney is an extreme caricature, but funny. It also has Alyson Hannigan in it, and I like her a lot too. It has a bit of a preachy quality to it, but is also shockingly touching at times. I think I need to go back to the first season and start watching from the beginning. Also, I want to see if they have it in Japanese (Amazon.co.jp only has the import version) and check out the dubbing.

The Terminator TV show has been excellent. The second season has started to air, and I'm really looking forward to watching that. I haven't had the time to watch it yet though. (I probably spend too much time writing pointless blog posts.)

I have also been watching "It's always sunny in Philadelphia" but honestly it is ... a bad series. But I'm somehow hooked on it. It is a low-class sort of humor, written and acted by idiots, idiotically. Slapstick and lowbrow. And yet somehow fascinating. Danny Devito randomly shows up after the first season. It is worth a look, but I can't explain why I keep watching it.

"Star Wars: The Clone Wars" is surprisingly good. The movie got panned, but I have really been enjoying the TV series. It is an old-school Flash Gordon style serial (that reminds me, I watched the first bit of Sci-Fi's "Flash Gordon" remake, but stopped because it wasn't good Sci-Fi, wasn't good Fantasy, and just generally wasn't good.) The Clone Wars has some annoying characters, but it does some very interesting things. The first few episodes have annoying characters with bad accents, but get past that (or just skip them) and it is very good. One of the things that I really like about it is that they show things from the point of view of the clones. They also kill them, and don't just have the clones act like throwaway killable ... clones. It would be very interesting if they would look more at the morality of the war, and the war from the point of view of the soldiers (they do this a bit), and the social position of the jedi and power they wield. It could become a really cool sociological study. Also, the space battles are totally cool. I recommend it!

"Flight of the Conchords" is amazing. The second season has just started. I am looking forward to that a lot. I tried to show R. the first episode. She didn't get it. Although, thinking about it, you really have to be good at English to catch the subtleties. It is hilarious. I'm positive I would not understand the same sort of thing in Japanese.

"Battlestar Galactica" is also excellent. I need to start watching the next season.

Also, I have been watching the new Knight Rider. It is bad. But I still keep watching it. Probably because all the actors are beautiful in it. And the opening theme music is amazing.

Actually, I think I watch too much TV. Man I really miss basketball. I used to be an NBA League Pass subscriber, and I would watch one or two games a day. But now I am lucky to find one game every other month or so.

February 1, 2009

Running across the Rainbow Bridge

Lately I've been running once a week with a running club from work. I was hoping that the once-a-week runs on Friday would motivate me to also run once or twice during the week to make three runs a week. I haven't been able to run more than once or twice a week because work has been very busy and last weekend I came down with a fever. It was horrible, but after losing my Saturday and Sunday, I managed to recover for work. By Wednesday or Thursday I was ready to start running again, but the timing didn't work out.

The runner's club at work planned a jog on Sunday to run across the Bay Bridge. I've been wanting to run over the bridge ever since we moved to our new place, because we can see the bridge from our balcony (if you do enough acrobatics to actually twist around an see it.) It looks like a run from my place, up to the bridge, across it and a little loop on Odaiba would be about 17km, so that is maybe a long run I can target for an upcoming weekend.

The run that we did today was really nice. We gathered at the and in English) and headed out for our run. There were five of us, and we took a gentle pace, which was good for me since I didn't run at all this week. The run through Odaiba was really nice, there were lots of people around, and the running area was very nice. You didn't have to fight through crowds and there was lots of space. I was excited because I could see my apartment building from Odaiba and the bridge.

The bridge itself was pretty cool. There is a northbound and southbound walking route. Twice over the length of the bridge you have to stop and walk through a building. And take an elevator in one to transfer from the northbound route to the southbound route.

After the run we hit the onsen. I'm not really a huge fan of onsen, although I do like them in general. I just have a hard time staying in a really hot bath for more than fifteen minutes or so. This place is set up to make a nice day trip. You go in there, get a wrist-band with a bar-code, and choose a Yukata to wear. Then you change into your Yukata and head out into the big shopping / eating / gaming section. It is a big themed building with lots of things to do, and lots of things to eat. You can pay for things with the bar-code on your wrist-band that has your key. And you will need it because things are expensive. I had a pretty normal lunch (well, it was more than I needed, but come on I had just run 10km!) and a beer, which came to 2700 yen! That is 1000 yen too many. And the food was completely average. I could have gotten some ice cream for 600 yen too, but I didn't think it was worth it.

I enjoyed the onsen, but again couldn't spend too much time in there. There were lots of foreigners in the onsen compared to other places that I've gone, probably because this is a really big onsen in Tokyo that is well-known. Also, onsen in Tokyo? Really? Are you saying that there is real natural hot spring water in Tokyo? I know there are lots of places that say they pipe it in from deep underground, but...

After lunch, the five of us went to the outdoor "foot bath" where you could wade around in these hot springs with rocks that is supposed to be good for you if you walk over them, but it was mostly just agony for me. You could also pay 1500 yen for 15 minutes with your feet in the "Doctor Fish" pool, where there are these strange fish that eat the dead skin off of your feet or something. I didn't think that was worth it either, but it was apparently an interesting experience. Maybe if I go back.

I really enjoyed the "run 10km, then hang out in an onsen for a while" day plan. I don't think it is something that I will do regularly, but it certainly was something doing once. It would be a lot less fun without the run though I think.

Cool Amazon Robot Party

A Danboard is a "robot" that showed up in volume 5 (I think - I'm only up to 3) of the Yotsubato! manga. It isn't really a robot, it is actually one of the characters from the manga dressed up as a robot made from carboard boxes. The main character, Yotsuba, thinks it is a real robot and hilarity ensues.

Thanks to Matt, the previous occupant of my desk, I've got a huge Danboard robot peeking out over the cube wall. I really like it. I also bought the normal sized version, and then the mini version when it came out in December of 2008. I was really surprised; those guys were the top sellers for weeks at Amazon.co.jp's hobby store, and now they aren't available new any more. The prices shot up quite a bit and now they are hard to get.

I'm glad I've got my two cute robots though.

A visit to Kashiwagi Farm and Ooyama Temple

In mid-January R. and I had a party at our apartment. R. wanted to make roast beef for the party, and since we had a rare instance of days off at the same time coming up she thought it would be fun to drive somewhere to get the meat. She was wanted to go to Kashiwagi Farm, about an hour out of Tokyo in Kanagawa that is apparently pretty well known. Of course, that means I was going to drive, but it is just as well since I need to get used to driving in Japan anyway.

The drive went well, and the farm had a nice shop. We got a bunch of meat, and then on the way out checked the nearby building where they milk the cows. You can take a tour, but it costs money and takes time.

Since we had the rest of the afternoon, we thought we would take a trip to nearby Ooyama Shrine up on Ooyama. I've never been to Ooyama, but I liked it because it was a big mountain and that is exactly what the characters mean: 大 big, and 山 mountain. I love it when things make sense like that. It must be a big mountain because even after we drove up pretty far (through some super narrow roads that were absolutely one-way despite what R. kept telling me) we then walked up lots and lots of stairs. Then we took a rope-train. Cool! The view was really great from up there (not that you can tell from any of the pictures.) Since it was "Adult Day" they had set up some special stuff that I do not know the purpose of. The last train out was at about 5:30pm or 6:00pm, so we just had time to really look around, take a few pictures, then get some tea before catching the train back to the midway station. Then lots more stairs, back to the car, and back to some super narrow roads before hitting Tokyo traffic.

It was both fun and stressful, but I do feel like I'm getting a bit better at driving in Japan. I don't know if I will ever be as comfortable as I am in America though.

You can see all the pictures at the Flickr set.

January 31, 2009

Amazon's list of 2008 Award Winning Manga

The good people over at Amazon Japan have just released their list of 2008 award winning manga. The good folks from the book department, whose floor I also sit at, put the list together. I've been reading the second series of books (well, comics) on the list, よつばと! and think it is a really good manga for Japanese learners.

January 30, 2009

Books: David Gemmel's The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend and Natsumi Hikaru's "The Doctrine of Sex"

David Gemmell's Druss the Legend

This past week has been a busy one, but sometime over the past week or two I picked up the second book about Druss the Legend in David Gemmel's the first book, and was even more impressed on reflection because that was David Gemmell's first book. It takes on the fantasy genre in a way that is interesting, going from the point of view of a hero on the way out. I've read lots of fantasy novels, and enjoy the straight on group of heroes against evil approach, but also enjoy fresh looks at the genre. (Most recently George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire's take on Fantasy as historically influenced political novels with a dash of magic.

What really surprises me is that David Gemmell's first book (Legend) was so good and so refreshing. The second novel in the Druss series, but not the second by publication date by a long shot, is a more traditional hero story, but still lots of fun. It is a great light reading fantasy novel that doesn't engage any of the meta-criticism centers of the brain that Legend challenges, and also comes off as a unique story on its own. Another book on the recommended pile. I do have the second book (by publication date) in his series on the pile to read, but next up will be something science fiction (Did you notice the Sci-Fi / Fantasy alternation I've been doing? I don't remember if I've actually done the write-ups in order, but I've been doing that for a while now.)

Natsumi Hikaru's "The Doctrine of Sex"

This is another one that I've been slowly reading. It is a Japanese book, and a bit of a random shot in the dark for me. A few months back Iijima Ai was found dead in her apartment. She is an interesting character, and was a regular on Sunday Japon, a weekend talk show that came on in the mornings. (Also famous as one of the shows that Dave Spector shows up on frequently, but I'm not going to write about him right now. Another interesting character.) She started out as a porn star, and ended up a pretty interesting commentator - a cut above the women that are on the shows to just look pretty - who had a bit of a feminist agenda, and definitely had interesting things to say.

So when I heard that she had been found dead, I decided that I should order her book PLATONIC SEX (小学館文庫) and try to read that. At the same time, Amazon decided to recommend this other book, "The Doctrine of Sex", to me, so I thought "why not?" and picked it up too. It came first, so I slowly worked my way through it.

I wasn't too serious about reading the book - just a chapter here or there when I had time (short chapters, about 1.5 to 2 pages) so you aren't going to get anything about Japanese literature analysis or pedagogical theory out of this from me. (Better hope Alex doesn't see this entry.) It was a fun read, Hikaru had some funny stories, and filled in the background of what it is like to work in the "water business" trade in Japan. It is really pretty light-hearted, she doesn't regret her job, and enjoyed the lifestyle while she was doing it. I did come away with an overall impression of a sadness, or rather a kind of process that jades people. One of the striking things she says is that she started to view men as belonging to one of two categories: men that should love her (and she loves) or men that should pay her. There is something about stripping people down to a sheer monetary value that is sad and depressing: over-application of capitalistic values seeping into the joy of life.

I came away from the book a bit depressed about it all, even though it really is fairly light-hearted. There are even lots of little one to four panel manga illustrating various funny things. It is an adult-oriented book though, so maybe I shouldn't admit that I read the thing here...

One interesting thing from the book is just how much money those women make. She commented once that if she saw something for $1000 or $2000 that she wanted, she could make that just by working hard for a day or two. Wow. Even more crazy is how much money people in those jobs can spend. A really interesting documentary The Great Happiness Space (or on Amazon: The Great Happiness Space (Original Japanese Version with English Subtitles)) is about the host clubs where a lot of these women spend their money. And boy do they spend it. I'm in the wrong line of business. (Actually I don't think I can drink enough to survive in those clubs, and I definitely don't have the people skills to cut it.) Anyway, an interesting movie. Check it out. Also kind of depressing.

For people that might be interested in reading it in Japanese: the level of Japanese was pretty high. I read it without dictionaries, but had to use my phone a few times to look things up, and sometimes just said "screw it, I've got a clear enough idea about things from context". It isn't as tough as some of Haruki Murakami's stuff, but it is harder than most of the manga that I translate. (Not that that is a very high bar, but...)

January 20, 2009

I need to check out 紅虎餃子房 or 万豚記

According to Famitsu, the restaurants 紅虎餃子房 and 万豚記 will have SF4 themed menus from 2009-02-12 to 2009-04-12. There are a bunch of either of those places in Tokyo, so I should be able to find one. Didn't look like there were any in Shibuya though.

Also you get a card with a QR code and can download a character voice to your phone. Or something. I hardly use all the crazy stuff that my phone can supposedly do.

January 19, 2009

Joe Haldeman's "The Accidental Time Machine"

On Sunday I picked up Joe Haldeman's "The Accidental Time Machine", a novel that I had ordered because Amazon told me to buy it. When Amazon tells me to buy something, I usually listen because it knows what I like. (But then again, I'm biased!)

Anyway, by Monday evening I had finished reading it. It was a really quick read. I read fast, but a little over a day is fast even by my standards: usually a Japan to US flight eats three novels, and those are about 14 hours flights. I probably only put in about 3 hours reading this book, so it runs a bit shorter than average for me.

I was interested in "The Accidental Time Machine" because I am a big fan of "The Forever War" - one of the classics in SF literature. I actually haven't read it in a long time and would like to pick up the new version that is coming out shortly. That is a good to book to have on hand. I should also pick up Starship Troopers since that is another great one to have around in a similar genre.

Anyway, I really enjoyed The Accidental Time Machine. You can tell because I didn't put it down until I had finished it. I don't think it is on the same level as The Forever War, but it is a nice time travel book. It reminded me a lot of Marooned in Realtime (which if you are interested in picking up you should probably pick up The Peace War as well.)

It also reads along the same lines as The Time Machine. I really enjoyed the book, but it was more along an indulgent, fast and fun read. I was disappointed with the Deus Ex Machina ending, but only in a plot and science kind of way, emotionally it was a really fun and rewarding ending.

I enjoyed reading through some of the bad reviews on Amazon, but I recommend it. Slot it in after you've had your does of hard sci-fi (or run it after some fantasy) and you'll probably really enjoy it!

I did anyway.

January 18, 2009

Recent Running and Hidden Raves

Run around the Imperial Palace
Run around the Imperial Palace

Run near home
Run near home

I just found out that there is a running club where I work. Nice. I joined up and the first run of the year was on Friday. Generally the club meets for dinner at 9:30pm, after running. People run at their own pace, so you have to make plans with people that you know that run at your pace if you want to run with people. The run is around the Imperial Palace, a run I'm intimately familiar with since I did it two or three times a week for 2.5 years. It is a convenient place to run because there is a facility called Runner's Station nearby. It is a little place where you can drop your stuff off in lockers, run, come back, and shower. It is actually very convenient, and I wish there were more of these places located conveniently around the city at nice running spots. Actually, I guess you can get almost the same deal by joining one of the gyms in the area and using them as shower facilities, but Tipness doesn't have a location convenient to the Imperial Palace.

After a nice run I met up with the rest of the crew and we had dinner at a korean place nearby. We got there at about 9:30, and probably left at about 11:30. It was so late in fact that I wasn't able to make the last train on the last leg of my commute. I had to take a taxi from Shinagawa back home, about $10. I didn't get home until 12:30, which is easily the latest I've come home because of the train system here.

On Sunday afternoon I took a long jog around the island across our house. I went as far south as I could for this run. It was about a 9.6km run, and I think I did it in about 56 minutes. It was a nice run. The most interesting thing was that down near the very tip of the island, in the midst of an industrial park, I came across a group of about 30 people. They were young, maybe in their mid 20s. There was a huge speaker system set up, and they had music going. I think it was a small rave-style (?) party. It was really strange. There is really nothing in the area. A nice little park, and a bunch of industrial factories and loading docks. And a big party of hip fashionable youths rocking out by Tokyo bay. Strange. I'll see if they are there next week at about the same time (Sunday, maybe around 4:00pm or so.)

I hope I can run a bit more often in the coming weeks. I still really want to find a way to run by the open side of Tokyo Bay, but it just doesn't look like I will be able to do that from where we live.

January 17, 2009

I really hate Zangief

Actually, Zangief is totally my favorite character. I love him. This guy apparently doesn't though. A rap from Balrog / M. Bison's point of view. Really funny. Man, I want to go play some SF4.

January 13, 2009

Review of John Scalzi's Android's Dream

I became a fan of John Scalzi when I read a book of his that Tor gave away as a free ebook: Old Man's War. After that I read The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony. That took me through the "Old Man's War" series, except for the new still-in-hardcover Zoe's Tale.

So, I've really enjoyed all of John Scalzi's stuff that I have read so far, and there is another book that is outside the "Old Man's War" series. Guess what? It's really good! You should read it too. It is a bit wacky, but in a good way, and has strong conspiracy and thriller elements. There are some things in it that are a bit easy to see coming, but not enough that the book is predictable. It was a real page turner and hard to put down. I'm really looking forward to reading Zoe's Tale when that comes out in paperback. If you have only read the Old Man's War books, you really owe it to yourself to pick up Android's Dream.

January 12, 2009

Crayon Physics Deluxe

I recently bought a new game, Crayon Physics Deluxe.

In the past three or four years, I've bought maybe three or four games: the Orange Box (for Portal mainly - I haven't gotten anywhere on HL2 really, it is too scary, Galactic Civiliations 2, which is totally awesome, World of Goo and now this one.

I have only played a few levels, but it is really fun. You basically get to draw stuff, and they follow a reasonable physics model. So far as far as I have gotten there are little pivots points that you can use to make pivots, but so far most of the game involves drawing bridges and using weights and stuff to make the ball move around.

There is a really nice pace to the game where each level takes only a few minutes. It is slowing introducing me to how to use the game's controls and idioms, and probably will get harder once they have introduced all the game elements.

The music is really nice, and the GUI is very pretty with a child-like crayon-based feel to it. I highly recommend this game. Go and get it!

Let's Talk about Bathtubs

My bathtub is a lot smarter than I expected. It has a nice little spout thing that doesn't get in your way. The spout can shoot water out to the left or to the right. There is a control panel where you can set the temperature of the water, and the bathtub will re-circulate water to make sure that the water stays at the temperature that you set. More interestingly, you can press a button to have the bathtub fill itself up automatically. It says nice things like "Ok, I'm filling up!" and when it is done it says "Ok! I'm ready and full, let's take a bath!" It plays little songs to encourage you to take a bath. Inviting, warm and nice sounding songs. There are a lot of appliances in my house that play songs, and in my opinion the bathtub is the least demanding and annoying of them all: if you ignore it for a bit, it doesn't start to get on your case about it.

One of the things that really surprised me is that after you take a bath and let the water out, it says something about cleaning, and then starts putting more water into the bathtub. It shoots water around in an attempt to clean the tub for you! My wife got after me because I was actually supposed to take our special bathtub sponge and bathtub cleaner thing and clean it myself, but I was still surprised. Actually, I thought it was starting the robot revolution because even though I had hit the big physical button that opens a drain, the bath decided to counter-mand my orders and started filling itself back up. (Well, it couldn't beat the big wide open drain, but still.)

Finally, if you tell the bath to fill it up but accidentally forget to close the drain it will do its thing for a while, and then tell you the check the tub: "I can't fill up! Check the drain (you moron!)" Then it waits until you close the drain and tell it to fill up again.

Man that thing is smart.

January 8, 2009

Another brief roundup: cheap ebooks, cool indy games, and a neat graphics library

This is another post mostly for myself so I don't lose track of some interesting looking things.

First up, cheap $1 ebooks from Orbit. It looks like this publisher is selling one ebook per month at $1, which is a deal that you can not pass up, even if the books are DRM-encumbered. I'm seriously considering buying at least the first two books, The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, and Ian M. Banks' Use of Weapons, even though I can't DRMd books on my OLPC with FBReader.

I highly recommend Use of Weapons by Ian M. Banks, but you should probably wait until next month to pick it up for $1. I have the paperback sitting right in front of me and I'm still going to buy the ebook.

Next, an interesting looking programming language for visualization and graphics. I wish I had more time to look into stuff like that.

Finally, Game Tunnel's list of 2008 best indy games - I want to check these out when I have more time.

January 3, 2009

Time Capsule Finally Working

So I have had a 500GB Time Capsule for a while. I am really impressed with it as an automated back-up device for Macs. I run two Macs at home, a three-year-old (and a bit) Mac PowerBook G4, a year and a bit old MacBook Pro (Intel, but not the latest all from aluminum one) and have been backing them up to my Time Capsule. When I first brought the Time Capsule home and tried to set up a wireless network, it worked fine for about ten minutes, but eventually the wireless would cut out. Connection attempts from Airport Utility would time out, and the wireless network itself would just disappear. Connecting from a wired connection worked fine though, and since I've been super busy I just chalked it up to one of those things and put the Time Capsule on a separate wireless router. I could still backup using wireless because it was on the same network, but I was limited to b/g speeds.

I recently had a reason to look into fixing this again: the warranty period is coming up in 3 months, and I picked up another Mac (for my wife - maybe I'll post more about that later.) I really wanted to get backups of her machine and my machine. The third G4 PowerBook is used essentially as a TV player connected to the TV, so that isn't too critical.

Anwyay, I took the Time Capsule down to the Apple Store in Shibuya, and after talking with the guys at the Genius bar, they recommended that they swap it out for a new one. That means that I lost the backups I had up until then, but there is no major loss there. They are only backups. I got the new Time Capsule home, and wouldn't you know it, this one works like a charm. The wireless network is 100% solid with WPA2, I backed up 100GB+40GB+70GB or so over wireless, no problems.

I really think the Time Capsule is a nice bit of hardware. First, it is absolutely silent. There is no fan on it (that I know of) and when you don't use the hard disk it spins down eventually and becomes dead silent. I tried to spin down external USB hard drives when they aren't being used under Ubuntu, but I never got them to turn off their fans. The Time Capsule is a lot more quiet than the other two external USB hard drives I have. The 802.11n wireless network is fast - on my MacBook Pro I was getting from 2GB/sec to 3GB/sec throughput on it. (On the PowerBook G4 only up to 1GB, but that doesn't have an 802.11n adapter on it.)

The backup software with OSX Tiger, Time Machine, is just amazing. It takes snapshots on the hour every hour, and has an amazingly pleasant UI to use to restore files. I have a similar sort of script running under linux with rsync and hardlinks, but there is no nice file restoration GUI, and ou can tell when it kicks in. Time Machine is really great because you can sleep the machine in the middle of a backup and it takes care of things gracefully.

So I'm really happy with my Time Capsule, even though it wasn't working for months. When things are covered under the warranty with Apple, you really get great service. I love that you can just make an appointment and walk into a real store and talk to a real person. I always buy the 3 year AppleCare Extended Warranty with Apple machines because having that service is just super useful.

That said, I also have three linux (Ubuntu 8.10, Fedora 10, and some random Ubuntu with XFCE version on the OLPC) machines at home and enjoy working with them also. The Macs are still better for just getting stuff done. I spend more time screwing around with the linux machines that I would like to admit (just look at my most recent posts...!)

Getting Tomoe to recognize Japanese characters in English on Fedora 10

I recently set up Fedora 10 on a ThinkPad X60 laptop, which has worked very well. I'll write about that a bit later I think. There are still some issues with the wireless connecting to a WPA2 network, and the Intel 945GM video drivers are apparently pretty crappy right now due to changes in the underlying architecture, but things are working really well on this small laptop.

One of the things I am interested in using this laptop for is as a Japanese-English dictionary. To that end I installed GWaEi, a Japanese-English dictionary using the Edict files. I had been using GJiten for a long time, but that project hasn't been updated in a while, so I thought I would try something new. (Warning: I had to compile from source, and make a minor change in main.c to have it default to called "/usr/local/bin/gwaei" when re-setting the language variables. A simple change, shouldn't be tough to figure out but feel free to drop a comment if you want more info.)

GWaEi seems to work well.

The other thing I like to do is use Tomoe, a linux-based handwriting recognition engine for Japanese and Chinese characters. It is conveniently available for install via yum. The problem is that after installation, no matter how many strokes I entered no candidates would show up. That is odd. I vaguely remembered that when I installed Tomoe on Ubuntu recently that I had to copy some file.

So, for those facing a similar problem at home: if you want Tomoe to make suggestions when you are running in an English environment, you will have to do something like this:

$ sudo cp /usr/share/tomoe/recognizer/handwriting-ja.xml /usr/share/tomoe/recognizer/handwriting-en.xml

That took care of the problem for me. Yay! Now I can fingerpaint my way to successful Japanese reading.

My next project: see if I can upgrade to the newest version of Ubuntu on the OLPC that I have, and get Tomoe working on that. It is a bit smaller than the X60 and might make a good machine to take to coffee shops. (That isn't really true though: the keyboard on the X60 is vastly superior to the one on the OLPC, but the OLPC has a much better screen for doing lots of ebook reading.)

Anyway, hope that helps someone out there. Jeez, it seems like my entire vacation has been spent on sundry computer things at home.

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